Dean Forbes



The 3rd Annual International Education

Strategy and Implementation Conference


16th April 2013

Professor Dean Forbes

Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor

Flinders University

Higher education, including international education, is over-regulated in Australia. It is more demanding for private institutions than public, but onerous for both.

It is the responsibility of peak bodies to anticipate, and influence, changes in regulation. Universities Australia (2013) recently published its submission to the Coalition’s Deregulation Reform Discussion Paper (based on a report commissioned from PhillipsKPA in 2012) outlining its plan to cut red tape.

It complained that the annual reporting cost of regulation to universities is $280 million.

The UA plan says that universities support the Coalition’s desire that government be ‘a respectful listener’ rather than a micro-manager. UA wants the Productivity Commission to review government regulatory measures, and channel the provision of regulatory data through a single national agency that it calls the National University Data Centre (NUDC).

The Plan has relatively little to say about international education, but it does mention duplication between TEQSA and the ESOS Act, the Tuition Protection Scheme, and the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012. These are all well chosen.

Overall, though, I have mixed feelings about the Plan. It is well meaning, and identifies important issues, but it still has a heavy feel about it. I am unconvinced about the proposed NUDC because it could easily become another drain on resources.

In this presentation I will comment on the implementation of the new regulatory framework and its’ implications for quality in international education.

Essentially, we have to be clear about what we want universities to achieve, in order to know how to ensure quality and therefore what regulation is required. Just about everyone in the community has an opinion. People who work in universities have the strongest views. Often it reflects a sentimental preference for returning to an imaginary past. So there is a lot of noise to filter.

For public universities quality and regulation go together. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that public funding is used properly, and they do this through regulation. Universities have a responsibility to provide quality activities and services, and, as public institutions, acknowledge the place of regulation.

So regulators need to continue to improve the ‘big sticks and little carrots’ that ensure public money is wisely spent and universities need to be flexible and responsive. In an ideal world both would make solemn oaths to do this without diverting scarce resources to pointless and repetitive data collection.


The strengths and weaknesses of AUQA (Australian Universities Quality Agency), TEQSA’s predecessor, were well known. At its core was a moderated self-assessment approach based on fitness for purpose. It expected institutions to diagnose and correct their own deficiencies under the external gaze of AUQA.

Most universities responded positively, eventually recognizing the peer review process largely mirrored the quality issues identified by university managers. Grandstanding criticisms of the process tended to focus on inflated estimates of the costs, or outrage at the idea of peer review, albeit it is the way much university activity, such as research, is critically assessed. AUQA considered regulation issues, such as compliance with the National Protocols, but its focus was primarily about quality and fitness for purpose.

Standards were measured in the AUQA approach by various means, including trend data and data benchmarking. Standards were relative, rather than absolute. The Government’s annual Institutional Performance Portfolio also used this form of benchmarking.

The establishment of TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) signaled a significant shift in the regulation of higher education in Australia. We are still coming to grips with what it means. A Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) drawn from the sector provides direction but is separate from TEQSA.

TEQSA has a much broader set of responsibilities than AUQA, as outlined in the TEQSA Act 2011. Prescribing standards is a means of regulating for the purpose of achieving consistency in the quality of higher education. TEQSA gauges compliance with the Threshold Standards: Provider Registration; Provider Category Standards; Provider Course Accreditation; and Qualification Standards.

A set of Non-Threshold Standards including, Teaching and Learning Standards, Research Standards and Information Standards are being developed. There will be no formal regulation of these standards. The Threshold Standards are the centre-piece. HESP has recently been reviewing the Non-Threshold Standards and identifying those that should be included in the Threshold Standards. These would include some about teaching and learning, research and information (Communique 6 p2).

HESP was required to commence a review of the Threshold Standards by January 2013. It issued three Communique’s No 4, 5, and 6, in late 2012 which set out its thinking. It is clear there is considerable recalibration occurring.

It identified a need for greater coherence around standards, developing a schematic representation of a higher education provider and the key areas of activity. These functions were defined as teaching, scholarship, research, research training, and the learning environment (Communique 4 p2).

HESP was also concerned with reducing overlaps within the standards, and shifting emphasis from inputs and process to outputs and outcomes (Communique 6 p2). All well and good, but we don’t yet know what this looks like.


What are the critical issues for international education? TEQSA is drilling into two areas both of which have substantial international education involvement.

The first is third party arrangements. Terms of Reference were published in January 2013; providers were issued a 47 page survey in March; and TEQSA flagged a possible follow-up by July. The final report will be completed in December.

TEQSA’s definition of a third party arrangement is quite broad: ‘Where a higher education provider has any aspect of its higher education activities or functions carried out on its behalf through a third party, agent or partner arrangement’ (TEQSA 2013a p3).

The focus for 2013 is more specific: student support services; course design, development and approval; and course delivery and management (TEQSA 2013a p3). That means, for a start, all transnational education (TNE) and offshore campuses.

English language skills is TEQSA’s second theme for attention. The Terms of Reference were released in March.

Insufficient English language skills is not just a problem of international students, as TEQSA recognises. It also applies to ‘local students of English and non-English speaking background, and mature age students’ (TEQSA 2013b p2)

TEQSA’s Course Accreditation Standards 1.2, 3.2 and 5.6 establish the benchmark. The key standards include English proficiency as a graduate attribute, the setting of appropriate English language standards, and assessment of graduate English language outcomes.

A sample of providers will be surveyed. TEQSA’s end product will be a report on key issues and recommendations, and another on good practice within the sector. These are due by December.

It is hard to judge precisely the amount of work involved, but most universities compound the risk of these kinds of exercises by doing too much rather than too little. It is, perhaps, the influence of academic culture.

Assuming a university is not found wanting, there are potentially two kinds of benefits.

One is being able to assure the public, locally and internationally, of Government approval. This, of course, assumes the public has confidence in the Government’s abilities to make the judgement. Universities don’t always help themselves in this regard.

The other is the benefits of the spotlight.  Self improvement agendas can be energised by these exercises. It was a critical positive outcome of AUQA’s approach.

What about HESP? While TEQSA’s interest in international education has been signalled, it is harder to identify precisely how international education will be affected by HESP’s deliberations, other than through the impact standards may have on teaching, scholarship, research, research training, learning environment. Perhaps this is the best outcome. Getting incorporated in HESP’s concerns with standards is risky.


Getting back to regulation it is, like taxes, inevitable. The task of universities is to turn it to strategic advantage.

Universities should focus on three requirements

First, to be effective, regulation must be credible and respected by the higher education providers and prospective students, and also satisfy public/government needs for accountability. That means no more hairy-chested public undermining of the regulation and QA framework, as happened with AUQA.

We also need to recognise that public perceptions of what constitutes a good university are being buffeted in new directions. It does complicate matters.

As an example, the idea of the ‘world class’ research university has become a powerful Wagnerian leitmotiv of status and quality. Yet global university rankings are driven by commercial entities that provide lucrative advice for universities on how to improve their ranking position. They might be good to fuel debate in the wine bar, but they are not a reliable indicator of university quality or, especially, suitability for purpose.

Second, regulation needs to be useful. The right standards need to be set.

Graduate outcomes, and student and graduate perceptions of the quality of Australian higher education, must be on a path of continuous improvement if we are to remain competitive.

I have argued on a number of occasions over the past few years that we must improve international perceptions of the quality of Australian higher education, as we lag too far behind our competitors, especially the USA. How TEQSA manages regulation and quality is a part (stress: a part) of the answer.

Third, the regulatory framework must not be overly expensive to establish and maintain, and it needs to be durable, not one constantly changed at the whim of government.

Australian universities have had a comparative advantage in the data available to international educators from both government and other sources. An illustration is the extensive use made of the International Student Barometer (ISB). However, new models of international student data collection and analysis, such as the Prism database developed by the ICG Group, are increasingly being adopted overseas, as universities expand their international student programs.

We need to build our capacity to monitor and review our international education programs both within individual universities and across the sector, and ensure that these are consistent with the reasonable needs of the regulators.

Universities Australia has made a significant intervention on the cost of regulation. It is timed to connect with the Opposition’s views. The Liberal Party’s pre-election Our Plan is positive about higher education, and ‘to work[ing] with the sector to reduce the burden of red tape, regulation and reporting’ (p 41). Make of it what you will.

On longevity? AUQA survived a decade. How long will TEQSA last? What would a new federal government make of the structures in place?

To sum up, if the new model of standards-based regulation does not improve the quality and the perception of quality in Australian higher education it will have failed. This is what HESP, TEQSA and the universities must get right.


AUQA  Australian Universities Quality Agency

HESP  Higher Education Standards Panel

DEEWR  Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

DIISRTE  Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

TEQSA  Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency


DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2011 Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for International Students in Australian Universities

DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2012 English Language Standards for Higher Education

Forbes, Dean 2012 ‘Examining the Impact of Transparency in Quality and Standards on International StudentsInstitutional Performance In Higher Education: Managing Risk To Ensure Sustainable Growth, Melbourne, 15-16th May 2012

Forbes, Dean 2011 ‘The Australian Qualifications Framework: Providing (Extra) Certainty for Mobile Students’, The Australian Qualifications Framework Making a Difference: A Symposium and AQF Launch, Melbourne 23 June 2011

HESP (Higher Education Standards Panel) 2012 Communique 4. November

HESP (Higher Education Standards Panel) 2012 Communique 5. November

HESP (Higher Education Standards Panel) 2012 Communique 6. December

Liberal Party Australia 2013 Our Plan. Real Solutions for All Australians

PhillipsKPA 2012 Review of Reporting Requirements for Universities, Phillips KPA Ltd, Melbourne, December 2012

TEQSA 2012 Information Sheet: TEQSA’s Approach to Quality Assessments, November 2012

TEQSA 2013a Quality Assessment: Third Party Arrangements: Terms of Reference, January 2013

TEQSA 2013b Quality Assessment: English Language Proficiency: Terms of Reference, March 2013

Universities Australia 2013 Submission to the Coalition’s Deregulation Reform Discussion Paper, Canberra March 2013